Ben arrived at the Bel Air mansion in good time. He let his '57 Oldsmobile ease gently to a stop one hundred and fifty yards from the property's nearest boundary. He had selected this spot for several reasons. Close but not too close, mere yards away from a natural rock escarpment that provided an excellent view of the Melheart residence, and, last but not least, the nature of the business he was parked outside provided the perfect means for him to allay the suspicions of any FBI snitch who might now be training his telescopic sniper's rifle upon him.
He turned and gazed lovingly at the frontage of the tastefully done up house on his right. 'Sweet mother of mercy,' he muttered. 'When I have money in my pocket again I'll be sure to give you girls a try.'
He blew a kiss at the windows of Madame Pessaud's Pink Pelican Club for Urbane Gentlemen. They gave no response, but then he didn't expect them to; the respectable facades of whorehouses never gave anything away. He got out of the car and pulled his tools out of the boot. A gentleman's travel bag, a blazer protected from the elements by a cover made out of one of those new acrylic fabrics, and a set of golf clubs, in a case with a leather lower and cloth upper.
He paused to sling the golf clubs over his shoulder and arrange his other belongings, then set off for the door. As he walked he darted a quick glance down the street. All appeared quiet, the main signs of life being a gaggle of amiable elderly pensioners, being assisted in their method of locomotion (which was via wheelchair) by helpful fresh-faced teenagers in tennis shoes and sweaters proclaiming such things as 'Sacramento High All Stars' and 'Californian Interstate First Division Badminton Team'. He reassured himself that he had plenty of time to slip discretely out of sight before the perambulators came close enough to see him clearly, and anyway young and old alike were doubtless innocent of the fleshy joys of the world.
He looked in the other direction, and his heart skipped a beat. Standing outside a featureless frontage half a block away were three goons who looked like they meant serious trouble. Their dark suits made them sure targets for the blazing Californian sun, which even at this late point in the afternoon was an incandescent torch, poised on the brink of engulfing the whole world in nuclear fire. Their large knobbly hands were partly thrust into their pants pockets, presumably in an a vain attempt to conceal the powerful Colts and Magnums he could feel reaching out for him, singing their endless song of death and destruction. Although the goons were wearing sunglasses, he was sure that they were looking straight at him. Any moment now they would draw their firearms and charge.
He panicked, and darted forward convulsively, for all the world like a jackrabbit attempting to escape the pounce of a bobcat. As he reached the shelter of the porch he heard a shout. 'Stop, in the name of the LAPD!'
Legs a-quivering, he turned, ready to put his hands up, or do anything that might prevent a hail of hot lead from cutting him down in his prime.
'It's not you they're after, bud,' a lazy voice drawled in his ear.
The voice came as a shock. Ben had neither seen nor heard the door open. Normally he would take drastic steps to reverse a situation like this, a potentially armed stranger at his back. But the scene on the street claimed his attention. The good men of the LAPD - for such surely were the heavyset goons, in civilian clothing - were racing down the street after the fleeing teenagers in prep gear, who had abandoned the wheelchair-bound pensioners and had taken to their heels. The oldies, though, were not going to helplessly await their fate; from beneath their shawls, petticoats and pyjamas they pulled out daggers, small arms and bombs, which they began to throw or shoot. Their accuracy was poor, but the barrage was enough to send LA's finest hurtling back along the street, past Ben's astonished gaze.
A bullet ricocheted off the verandah nearby, and a huge and meaty hand closed upon his shoulder. 'You'll be safer inside, sir,' said the owner of the matching voice. Ben was drawn inside, and the door slammed shut with a solid thunk.
A moment later and he was able to make sense of his surroundings. He stood in a large, richly furnished drawing room. The figure who had rescued him from the street battle was a negroid, dressed in coat and tails but with such a peculiar, doll-like face that Ben briefly thought he was looking at one of those - what? - damn golliwogs the brits were so keen on. He was short but powerfully muscled, and looked like he enjoyed ripping logs in half.
Beyond him, seated, or rather sprawled undelicately, on a chaise lounge, was a woman whose attractive figure and uniquely cut clothes gave the impression that she was wearing much less than she actually was. She was a redhead, and she appraised him with a bold stare that brought a flush to his cheeks.
'What have we here, Mustafa?' she said.
Mustafa grinned, exposing teeth so white that Ben had to fight back an explosive wave of rage. He tried not to think of his own teeth, a motley assemblage of decaying bits of yellowing enamel held together by enough mercury to poison the population of any number of small fishing villages in Japan. 'A paying customer, Miss Dee.'
'And are you?' she asked, leaning forward to inspect him, and exposing a curve of breast sweetly fair enough to suggest that she hadn't fallen victim to the sun-worshipping cult that was claiming so many of California's finest young women.
Ben was in a dilemma. Hitherto, his plan had relied upon his gaining entrance to the brothel, then making his way straight through the ground floor, which was usually given up to offices, kitchens and the like, while the girls entertained their clients upstairs - and then out the back door, over the garden fence, and up to the hilltop which overlooked the Melheart residence. Now that he was in, though, he doubted that he could pull it off. The black man looked ferocious. Perhaps he had been brought here recently from Africa, centuries after the last slave ships, and hadn't had time to learn the civilising ways of the white man. One false step and Ben could kiss any future visits to other whorehouses goodbye.
As if reading his mind, Mustafa said, 'now you're not going to make a liar out of me, are you mister.'
Abruptly Ben had a moment of epiphany. There was nothing to be gained by lying to these people. He didn't have the cash to buy a foot massage, let alone anything this house of vice actually offered. Best come clean. 'Actually, I was just on my way to that hilltop behind your house,' he said with as much dignity as he could rummage together. 'That fight on the street rattled my wits and I dashed up to your door for safety. If you would let me through, I'll thank you and trouble you no more.
Miss Dee rose, a motion more cat than human, and came forward. The slanting rays of the late afternoon sun stretched through the window and made her hair glow like fire. Beyond her, past a vista of terracotta statues, small orange trees, a low stone wall and then - so far so close - he could see the hillside in question.
'Now why would we do that,' she said.
He had a distinct feeling of doors slamming shut.
'Because it'd be a hospitable thing to do, and we Californians are known for our hospitality,' he tried. 'It's what distinguishes us from - well - people who live in Washington State, or Montana.'
The black man pushed his finger into Ben's chest. God that hurt. 'What's your name, mister.'
'Solomon. Solomon Smith. I'm a herpetologist,' he blurted out.
'A herpe-what?' Miss Dee asked, her nose wrinkling in disgust.
'Mister, we don't let anyone with herpes into our house,' Mustafa said, punctuating each word with an emphatic poke of his finger. 'We're a clean house. We pay a doctor good money to keep our girls clean.'
'No, you got me all wrong,' Ben said hurriedly. 'A herpetologist is a guy who studies skinks and geckoes and stuff. You may not be aware of this, but California has a variety of species of ground-dwelling lizard worthy of investigation and protection. And that hill out there is just the sort of spot they like to make their homes in.'
For one giddy moment his own words had such a powerful effect on him that he imagined tiny families of geckoes and skinks setting up little houses, kind of like indian teepees, in the long grasses of the hill. Then reality intruded once more. Shit, he thought, next they're going to ask me the latin names of the state's six most common species of lizard, and I won't be able to tell them!
He couldn't tell them anything, in fact. The words he had just recited were all that he could remember of a drunken conversation he had once had with Dr Azrael Arkady, founder of the science of herpetology, in LA at least.
Miss Dee and Mustafa looked at each other. Ben held his breath.
Miss Dee nodded slowly. 'OK Solomon. Sol-o-mon,' Mustafa said, trying out each syllable on its own like he was tasting the word. 'Miss Dee says you can go.'
Ben let out a breath. 'Do you want me out the front door or the back?'
Ben could still hear the popping noises of bullets on the street side. He thought regretfully of his '57 Oldsmobile, by now probably holed many times in the petrol tank. 'I'll take the direct route,' he said.
Mustafa gestured down the hallway, and Miss Dee led the way. Ben followed, expecting at any moment to feel the huge hands close around his throat. When they came to the door, with a view of the garden, easily navigable even to a man toting a sack of golf clubs, he felt a sudden surge of glorious optimism. All that remained was to turn the key.
'Hang on,' Miss Dee said, and the optimism died. 'What's in the golf club bag.'
'Why, clubs, of course.'
Ben's heart sank to his knees although he was careful not to let the despair show on his face. There were certain objects in the golf bag that would not be found on the common or garden Californian herpetologist. With another quick glance through the window at his garden destination, Ben decided to bluff his way out. Any PI worth his salt should be able to outfox a middle-aged whore and her shaved gorilla.
"I am a respected member of the scientific community", Ben began with as much indignation as he could muster given the stressful situation, "and I do not need to show you anything."
The response from his two hosts was not reassuring. "Ha!" cackled Miss Dee, "Any community that you're a respected member of must be pretty desperate. What do you think of the our guest, Mustafa?"
Mustafa slowly looked Ben up and down once again. "Not a lot. He sure is one awful lair."
"Now wait just a minute. What gives you the right to treat people this way?" Ben could hear the desperation creeping into his voice, but he was too unnerved by the combination of physical attraction and abject terror his two captors aroused in him respectively. In his addled state he was not even sure which emotion was installed by which person.
"For once thing," Mustafa continued in his slow drawl, "what would a 'herpetologist'", he pronounced the word slowly, rolling around his mouth as if it was a cough lozenge , "be doing with a bag of golf clubs. Especially a bag of golf clubs with the words "LA Private Eye of Year 1948" stitched on it."
Ben gave a start. What an idiot he had been! Oh, what a long way he had fallen from the giddy heights of the McMahorn case, the case that had won him the cursed clubs so many years ago. He stared at his feet, totally defeated by cruel fate and his own incompetence.
Ms Dee gave another sharp cackle at Ben's pained expression. "Besides, we haven't seen any lizards all the nights we've been working out there", she exclaimed. Ben looked up quickly and was rewarded with Mustafa's ugly look at Ms Dee. The woman had gasped and covered her mouth with her hand, as if to stop any further words from escaping. Ben decided that perhaps fate was not quite as cruel has he had thought.
"Yes, about your nocturnal activities." Ben began, no longer having to fake his optimistic tone, "You've been drawing quite a bit of attention to yourselves lately. Attention that I know you can do without...". Ben swung his gaze over towards Mustafa. "...attention from certain 'agencies'." He finished, emphasizing the last word.
The pair from the brothel looked worried for the first time since Ben had entered. Ben decided to push his luck one more time, "It so happens that the group that hired me is not really interested you two, or what happens on those rocks." The woman looked relieved. "I'm sure your cooperation would be appreciated by the Government." Ben added for good measure.
The pair were silent for a moment and then Mustafa spoke. "You shouldn't threaten Ms Dee like that, Mister." he said, "I'm afraid I am going to have to hurt you.". Mustafa clenched his enormous hands into fists the size of lawn bowls, and slowly raised them to chest height. Ben was reminded of a battleship raising it guns before a navel battle. His right hand began to creep slowly towards the golf bag, fingers spread wide seeking the touch of cold steel.
"Wait a minute." Ms Dee's voice had regained its old confidence. "This man might be missed. We shouldn't draw attention to ourselves, not when we are so close."
"I don't like the way this smells, Ms Dee" Mustafa growled. "The boss wouldn't like it."
"Well the boss is not here and we are." Ms Dee turned towards Ben. "I'm sure we could come to some arrangement." She walked over to the door and unlocked it. "You may go." She opened the door.
Ben did not have the first clue what they had been talking about, but he was not going to argue, not with an open door in front of him. His right hand had found its target hidden in the golf bag. Not wanting to let go of his favorite weapon, he quickly departed without shaking hands with his would-be captors. Stepping out into the bright sunshine, he hurried across to small patch of lawn towards the gate to the outcrop.
"Was that wise, Ms Dee?" Mustafa asked respectfully once Ben was out of earshot, "We don't know he's not one of them."
"It may not be wise" the woman replied, "but out of risk comes opportunity. That fool may end up being a big plus for the project."
"As you say so, Ms Dee"
"Still, it doesn't do to tempt fate. Follow he and make sure he doesn't get into trouble..."
"Yes Ms Dee"
"...that is, until we want him too."
"Yes Ms Dee" The big man moved quietly out into the back garden.